Celebrity coffee endorsement turns bitter: Child labor practices exposed

Actor George Clooney has been a celebrity brand ambassador for Swiss coffee brand Nespresso since 2006. His contract is reported to be worth about $40 million. His endorsements of the company’s coffee began in Europe and expanded into North America. Wednesday a U.K. Channel 4 documentary trailer dropped online titled Dispatches It breaks a story of the child labor practices used in Guatemala where some of Nespresso’s coffee beans originate.

Guatemala is the world’s 10th largest coffee producer. The investigative team was given access to farms where they saw children working in the fields.

This is particularly embarrassing for Clooney. He’s known as a woke celebrity who doesn’t hesitate to pop off on any given topic, especially when it comes to social issues and culture. He even joined Nespresso’s sustainability advisory board seven years ago. Now he is issuing a statement as damage control. Clooney is “surprised and saddened” by the story.

Having grown up working on a tobacco farm from the time I was 12 I’m uniquely aware of the complex issues regarding farming and child labor. That’s why I joined the Sustainability advisory board of Nespresso seven years ago along with the Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade International, and the Fair Labour Association among many others with the goal then, as it remains to this day to improve the lives of farmers. Make their farms more profitable. More sustainable. More safe. I’m enormously proud of the success of their efforts. They’ve improved the lives and livelihoods of thousands of farms all around the world. They’ve risked their lives trying to rebuild farms in South Sudan and spent a year on the ground helping farmers restore their farms in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. The simple truth is that this program is overwhelmingly positive for coffee farmers around the world. With that in mind it is also imperative to have talented investigative reporters showing the board where they have yet to succeed. We knew it was a big project when it started 7 years ago, and honestly I was surprised and saddened to see this story. Clearly this board and this company still have work to do. And that work will be done. I would hope that this reporter will continue to investigate these conditions and report accurately if they do not improve. The check and balance of good corporate responsibility lies not just with the company itself but also independent journalists like Mr. Barnett to hold everyone’s promise to account.

No one expects Clooney to micromanage the choice of farms selected for coffee beans. But, if he’s on a “sustainability” board, shouldn’t he and the other board members at least be doing some research on the working conditions on the farms? The sustainability label is supposed to mean the product is well-sourced. It looks like Clooney is just another liberal celebrity making feel-good gestures while cashing in.

Nespresso issued a statement, too.

“Nespresso has zero tolerance of child labour. It is unacceptable. Where there are claims that our high standards are not met, we act immediately. In this case, we’ve launched a thorough investigation to find out which farms were filmed and whether they supply Nespresso. We will not resume purchases of coffee from farms in this area until the investigation is closed. Any issues we uncover will be dealt with diligently and firm action will be taken.

We work with Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International to reinforce good working practices and fair treatment of workers, including education on the dangers of child labour. We invest heavily in this effort; in 2019, our 400 agronomists made over 170,000 farm visits and trainings across the world, including 60’000 detailed on farm sustainability assessments. This was backed up by more than 3,300 third party verification farm audits. We will continue to do all we can to stamp child labour out. It has no place in our supply chain.”

At the time that Clooney joined the sustainability board, Nespresso touted his collaboration on “ideas and solutions towards improving the lives and futures of coffee farmers.” Nespresso claimed to have “a positive impact on the environment, farmers, consumers and society at large.”

“I’ve been working with Nespresso internationally for nine years and I really love and respect the brand, what they do, and how they do it,” said George Clooney. “Nespresso and I have a shared commitment to sustainability, most recently helping to rebuild coffee farms in South Sudan.”

The minimum employment age in Guatemala is 14. The Guatemalan government doesn’t have a good record of enforcing that law, though.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s human rights report in 2018, approximately 1 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are working in Guatemala. Child labor in Guatemala’s coffee industry is more prevalent in rural areas where extreme poverty is more common.

So, since he and the company were happy to hold themselves out as standard-bearers of all that is good in business matters, this documentary will pack a wallop when it airs on Monday. That is why damage control began right away. No one wants to see young children being exploited as farm labor. Guatemala has a reputation for child labor abuses. It looks like this embarrassment was completely avoidable if only a little attention had been paid by that sustainability board.